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Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie finds final resting place

Haile Selassie  

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Ethiopia's late Emperor Haile Selassie went to his final resting place on Sunday in an emotional, visually stunning reburial ceremony a full 25 years after his death.

Dressed in brilliantly colored robes and bearing large crosses of silver and gold, priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church held a mass outside the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa before solemnly leading Selassie's small coffin inside.

Selassie, who was one of Africa's most charismatic leaders and ruled Ethiopia for 44 years before he was overthrown in 1974, was then lowered into a tomb next to an identical one holding his wife, Empress Menen.

The haunting chant of Orthodox prayers echoed out over the city and thousands of ordinary Ethiopians bowed their heads in prayer in the grounds of the cathedral, many weeping openly.

Selassie, who is considered God by followers of the Rastafarian religion, died in 1975 at the age of 83, allegedly murdered by Marxist officers who seized power a year earlier.

His body was buried near a latrine, an insult to a man who had enjoyed almost absolute power.

After the regime that toppled him was ousted in 1991, the remains were put in a mausoleum holding another former emperor, Menelik II, and other members of the family dynasty.

Spear-bearing "patriots'' who fought against the 1939-41 Italian occupation of Ethiopia carry Sunday the casket containing Selassie's remains to his final resting place in Trinty Cathedral in Addis Ababa  

But he had wanted to lie inside the granite tomb in Holy Trinity Cathedral so his family, most living in exile, worked closely with the Orthodox Church and his allies for a reburial.

The Orthodox Church still considers Selassie its head and his reburial was a showcase of Ethiopian culture.

Old warriors sporting lions' manes on their heads and carrying shields and spears formed a guard of honor for Selassie as his funeral procession weaved across the city.

The coffin was draped in the red, gold and green of the national flag and embroidered with Selassie's personal standard, showing on one side Ethiopia's patron St. George slaying a dragon and, on the other, the Lion of Judah.

The patriarch, bishops and high priests of the Orthodox Church said in the shade of velvet umbrellas intricately embroidered with flowers and religious scenes.

"Although they killed you and threw your body in an unmarked grave, they could not tarnish your image. You are a great leader, you have done so much for your nation and Africa," an Orthodox priest said during a mass held in Selassie's honor.

Legend has it that Selassie was the 225th monarch in a line that stretches back well over 2,000 years, a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Westerners remember him addressing the League of Nations after Mussolini's fascists invaded his country and telling the Europeans who did not come to his aid: "This time it is my turn; next time it will be yours."

Supporters view him as a modernizer who promoted education at home and a figurehead for the struggle against colonialism.

But he also ruled over a system that created a small class of wealthy landowners but kept most subjects in abject poverty.

An Ethiopian Orthodox priest holds an image of Selassie atop his casket as Ethiopian Patriarch Paulus observes in the background  

A famine killed hundreds of thousands in the last years of his reign and his moral authority was undermined by images of him feeding his pets prime meat while his people starved.

Ethiopia's current government earlier this week attacked Selassie's legacy, accusing him of oppression and brutality against the country's peasants.

Although his reburial was intensely emotional, few lined the funeral procession's route and only a few thousand gathered in the huge Meskel Square to see the coffin.

Many of those who did turn out said the emperor made mistakes and perhaps stayed in power for too long but that he was a gentle man who tried his best to help his people.

"He was one of the world's most brilliant leaders, next to King Solomon of Israel," said Feyesa Wolde Emanuel, a sprightly 87-year-old dressed in the uniform from his time in Selassie's imperial guard. "He loved his people."

Rita Marley -- widow of reggae legend Bob Marley -- was among the Rastafarians at the ceremony. "Rasta people will be all loving his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I. There is no end of his reign," she told Reuters.

Rastafarians are named for Ras (Prince) Tafari, Selassie's title before being crowned emperor in 1930. The movement grew under the influence of Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement.

Selassie gloried in the title "King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah" but neither he nor his family ever claimed he was a divine being, as Rastafarians believe.

Copyright 2000 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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